Seventeen-year-old Abdi, in the blue overalls of an electrician trainee, is fixing the red and blue electrical wires hooked onto a wooden board. Not far away, one of his fellow trainees has climbed a ladder to check on the florescent light to which Abdi’s wires are connected: It won’t light up.
“I used to be brave – a lion – among the soldiers,” says Abdi matter-of-factly. “I was at war, fighting against other groups.”
Taking a break from the wires and bulbs, Abdi sits down to talk to me about the days when he was not in blue overalls, but an army uniform. He was once a solider, lured into Somalia’s endless civil war by the ideology and the monthly salary.
“At the beginning, we thought these people were good. Their ideology was based on religion.” As Abdi gets deeper into his story, his gaze grows intense and hands start to gesture, as if it will help him to rid the burden he has been carrying ever since. “But eventually we realized that their ideology was misinterpretations of Islam. They were doing nothing but harming the communities we belong to. So I left.”
“My family was so happy to see me. But I didn’t know what to do with myself, and how to spend my days.” With limited education, no skills and no hope of finding a decent job, Abdi soon found himself trapped in yet another limbo.
Then he heard about the vocational training programmes for former child soldiers. With the encouragement of his family, Abdi enrolled in a programme run by INTERSOS – an Italian NGO and a partner of UNICEF. Faced with a choice of skills training in carpentry, plumbing, electrical or tailoring, he chose electrical.
“I envision myself finishing this course then finding a good job as a professional electrician,” says Abdi. His voice is filled with confidence. Making the best out of his second chance is clearly his top priority. And he is not alone.
Back in the courtyard, activities are in full swing. One corner is occupied by the carpentry group. A young man works a power drill with great enthusiasm, while another tackles a piece of wood with an equally-loud sander. Separated by the office building is the plumbing group. Under the guidance of a teacher, one by one, they go up to the centre and practice on a gadget with tools in various shapes and sizes.
Away from Abdi’s colleagues, in a large classroom, a group of young women are also busy – not with saws and drillers – but with needles, thread and sewing machines. Their easy familiarity with the flywheels and pedals makes it hard to tell they only started learning how to use the machines six months ago.
Like boys, girls are equally vulnerable, if not more in the face of armed conflicts. Out of the 100 trainees at this centre, 30 are girls who were once recruited by armed groups or at risk of being recruited.
One of the most devastating consequences of Somalia’s civil war, which has lasted more than two decades and is still raging, is the violent, abusive and exploitative treatment of children. UNICEF estimates that there could be 5,000 children and youth currently within the ranks of various armed groups. The situation is particularly dire in the Central and South regions.
“I joined the Al-Shabaab because I was still a child – I was too young to make decisions,” says Ali, another trainee enrolled in the vocational training courses. With funding from the European Union, UNICEF is able to support these children and help local authorities, NGOs, civil society and communities protect those who are at risk and provide reintegration support to those who want to start a new life.
When they graduate, each of the trainees will receive a startup kit, and be given continued support in the reintegration process. Meaningful support like vocational training is key to protect children and youth from the preying eyes of the militias, and keep them within their families and communities.
Both Abdi and Ali are determined not to go back to the military.
“It is very stressful to be with those groups,” said Ali. “For those who are thinking of joining, I would ask them to think again. It will not give you a good life. Only empowering ourselves through education can give us a good life.
Never join the groups. It will only lead you to death.”
Kun Li works as a Communication Specialist for UNICEF Somalia. Chinese by birth; American, African and world citizen by heart.